At the heart of every community in New York City and the surrounding areas are its restaurants and bars. From cultural cuisine to social gatherings, to watching a game, to simply providing an alternative to home cooking, these institutions are what make NYC and its neighborhoods so special. Most of these are small businesses that employ people from within the community. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit this industry the hardest. As we reopen and re-imagine the post-COVID world, how to save this valuable sector of the economy is tremendously important. Even with NYC projected to “re-open” on June 8, restaurants are in only phase three of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, and even then, once they reopen, they will have to do so at reduced capacity. Combine that with the need for social distance and this puts the industry in a huge bind.
As a solution, the NYC City Council is looking to expand outdoor dining space for restaurants and bars. This is a wonderful concept, especially during the warmer months, but there are many issues that need to be addressed. Most pressing is that this is not a practical solution for every establishment or for every community. Will those who cannot afford a complicated application process or the construction of needed infrastructure like barricades and seating be at a disadvantage? What about those located in areas too cramped to add outdoor seating? We must avoid a haves-and-have-nots system that could further harm entrepreneurs who poured their life savings into their small businesses or prioritize some establishments or even whole commercial districts over others. That’s why this alone cannot be the only solution. It is more than a little disheartening that the open streets proposal has been the most discussed and sought after plan (though kudos to the Council for capping third-party delivery fees) while issues like rent relief, more flexible loan structures, open container laws, and other regulatory relief would be more equitable.
Intro-1957 is the City Council’s bill, which was introduced amid great fanfare on Thursday, May 29, is scheduled for a hearing on Thursday, June 4. Like the City itself, the concept has a lot of moving pieces. In essence, the bill envisions first, identification of open spaces in each community by the NYC Department of Transportation, then an application process to the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, certified by a licensed architect or engineer. The application will have to satisfy yet to be determined guidelines from the Departments of Health and Transportation.
As the bill moves through the Council, here are some issues we believe must be addressed:
- Liability- The establishment’s insurance may not cover the expansion of service to the property of a neighbor. That makes cutting deals with owners of plazas, unused parking lots or simply putting tables and chairs in front of a closed neighboring storefront difficult. What if servers, patrons and passersby have to mix on the sidewalks or in the streets abutting the expanded facilities? This is a rather litigious city, so this is no small issue.
- Deliveries and trash collection- sadly, it will be sometime before we return to “the city that never sleeps”. Will these street closures only permitted be during certain hours? Will delivery companies be mandated to deliver during off-hours? What if this conflicts with the rest of the route? What about off-hour staffing? What about local residents who move in and out, need service calls, and get their own deliveries?
- Parking – aside from deliveries and service calls, many establishments are dependent on loyal customers coming from other neighborhoods and communities. Are they to be encouraged or discouraged by the plans?
- Neighborhood involvement- What if the neighborhood does not want off-hour deliveries? What if they do not want the streets closed in the first place? Do they have a say? What about other businesses? How can the city upend the operations of one business to satisfy another?
- Access for first responders or service providers- If the refrigerator breaks or the plumbing’s backed up, how will service people get through?
- Restrooms- Certainly, once phase 3 hits this will not be an issue. But if dinning can only be done outdoors for a period and patrons are not allowed in the establishment, this could be difficult.
- Permit procedures and costs- The City is looking to expedite the permit process but what are the factors for consideration? In the past, the district Councilmember had the ability to hold up a permit. Is that still the case? Does the community have any up or down approval?
- Pickups- People are getting comfortable with pickup and delivery. Would they be banned from picking up food under this proposal? Would restaurants be able to deliver if streets are closed off? And what about the non-restaurant businesses? Their phased reopening envisions pickups as well, so they will want access for their customers.
- Security and safety – who provides? If the roadways are restricted or closed to traffic, what rules will those making commercial deliveries have to follow with respect to following traffic rules, or where they can park their vehicles.
- Enforcement – who enforces social distancing? Noise? Encouraging neighbors to rat-out their neighbors by calls to 311 is disturbing. Many small businesses across the City are still reeling from heavy-handed enforcement by the Buildings Department for violations for unpermitted decades-old signs instigated by mere 311 phone calls.
For the expansion of outdoor dining to be successful many of the above issues must be addressed. But, as with most things, all stakeholders must be included in the discussion. Communities need to have meaningful input in the approval process. The Council must also strongly distance itself from enforcement as a way to balance the City’s budget, particularly as relates to the hospitality sector and those who service them like the trucks making deliveries and the tradespeople who keep them operating.